The Van Gogh Museum has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Executed during the summer of 1882, The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague ranks among Vincent van Gogh’s earliest, and most groundbreaking, experiments with colour. Displaying a sense of zealousness on the part of the eager, budding artist, this large watercolour ultimately reveals a palpable talent and sensitivity. The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague addresses a typically Dutch subject, which provides the framework for Van Gogh's researches around his particular compositional vision, as well as into his burgeoning affinity with colour; recreating the cold light of a cloudy spring morning, the watercolour already demonstrates the artist’s ability to orchestrate colour in such a way as to make the green vibrate with a singular intensity. Instead of portraying the mill frontally, Van Gogh has taken an unusual viewpoint to include the zigzag of a fence, anticipating his innate feel for dynamic lines that would eventually be fully manifested in the artist’s mature landscape paintings.
At the time when The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague was executed, Van Gogh was living in The Hague. The artist had moved there at the end of 1881, having abruptly left the family home in Etten as a consequence of a heated argument with his parents. Despite the unhappy circumstances of the move to The Hague, Van Gogh was rather excited at the prospect of working there: ‘I think it’s wonderful to be in The Hague, and I find no end of beautiful things and I must try and depict some of them’, he wrote to Theo upon his arrival (letter 194). Having first asked for hospitality from a distant relative, the well known Hague school painter Anton Mauve, Van Gogh eventually rented a studio in Schenkweg, just outside the city. It was around there that The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague was executed. Still existing today, the mill depicted was at the time part of the village of Rijswijk, situated a short walk away from Schenkweg. Plans to demolish the mill were eventually abandonned, but Van Gogh must have assumed the mill had been destroyed, for on 19 July 1882, he wrote to Theo: ‘I long for you so much…I would like to take a walk with you – even though the Rijswijk mill isn’t there any more’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, vol. II, London, 2009, letter 248, p. 113). The mill held a personal significance for Van Gogh: in 1873, he had walked there with Theo, sharing a glass of milk with him as the pair waited for the rain to stop (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. I, letter 11, p. 32). In the watercolour, a sign reading ‘Melk te koop’ (Milk for sale) is indeed visible. The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague was probably executed shortly before Van Gogh’s letter dated 19 July, bringing back the memory of that distant 1873 afternoon, with the assumption that by the time Theo would have been able to visit The Hague, the mill would have been demolished.
Accordingly, The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague ranks among the very first, significant watercolours to be executed by Van Gogh. Until the summer of 1882, the artist had been hesitant to include colour in his drawings. When, in February 1882, Mr Tersteeg – who had been Van Gogh’s boss at Goupil & Cie years before in The Hague – had asked him to execute some watercolours, the artist lamented to his brother: ‘You understand that I’m extremely short of money. Mr Tersteeg bought a little drawing from me for 10 guilders, which helped me to get through the week. But he wants them small and only in watercolour and I can’t do that yet… don’t forget that I’ll go under if I have too much worry and strain’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, letter 205, p. 29). In March, the artist was still convinced that working in watercolour was premature: ‘the main reason I can’t make watercolours straightaway is that I must draw more seriously and pay attention to proportion and perspective’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, letter 210, p. 36). That same month, however, a challenging commission would iron out Van Gogh’s reservations. At the end of March 1882, the artist’s ‘Uncle Cor’ ordered twelve ‘small pen drawings’ of The Hague, offering to pay a set price for each. By the beginning of April, Van Gogh had completed the series. Impressed by the drawings, Uncle Cor ordered a further six. Although Van Gogh’s main preoccupation since his arrival in The Hague had been the study of the figure, Uncle Cor’s commission prompted the artist to seriously tackle landscape. Executed mainly in pencil and pen, with a few white highlights, those drawings had forced Van Gogh to practice and master perspective, strengthening the artist’s confidence in his draughtsman's skills. Uncle Cor’s commission thus marked a turning point in Van Gogh’s serious and assiduous study of drawing, opening the way to colour and to works such as The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague.
An enormously accomplished work, The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague suggests that, despite the declared caution in approaching the medium, Van Gogh had indeed started considering watercolour well before the summer of 1882 and his arrival in The Hague. Indeed, already in 1881, Van Gogh had informed Theo: ‘I bought Cassagne’s Traité d’Aquarelle and I am studying it; even if I should not make any watercolours, I shall probably find many things in it, for instance, about sepia and ink’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. I, letter 168, p. 274). That same year, Van Gogh did actually try his hand at watercolour: in early December he visited Anton Mauve during a trip to The Hague, informing Theo of having worked on two watercolours during the visit (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. I, letter 192, p. 331). Mauve’s guidance was instrumental in initiating Van Gogh to the medium: ‘Theo’, he rejoiced, ‘I’ve been so enlightened by Mauve as regards the mysteries of the palette and painting in watercolour. And that will repay the 90 guilders this trip has cost’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. I, letter 192, p. 332). The young artist was immediately enthralled by the new medium, understanding its potential for capturing wide stretches of landscapes: ‘How marvellous watercolour is for expressing space and airiness, allowing the figure to be part of the atmosphere and life to enter it’ (ibid.). Echoing that early observation, The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague is indeed endowed with an atmospheric force and vividness that would have been hard to rival in pencil or pen.
By the time Van Gogh executed The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague the artist had acquired enough experience with watercolour to start consciously experimenting with the medium. In the already quoted letter of 19 July 1882, Van Gogh informed Theo that he had resumed working, specifically in watercolour: ‘The two drawings I’ve done in the past few days are both watercolours. Because I wanted to make an experiment… As soon as I’m fully recovered I would like to make a more serious attempt at a particular watercolour on Harding, because that paper (more than Whatman) allows you to apply a solid basis on ground in black and white before starting to wash, without it taking away the look of watercolour’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, letter 246, p. 107). It is possible that The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague is indeed one of the two ‘experiments’ mentioned by Van Gogh in the letter, the other possibly being View of the outskirts of The Hague (J.B. De La Faille, Vincent Van Gogh: The Complete Works on Paper, San Francisco, 1992, no. 916), probably destroyed during the Second World War. The artist’s eagerness to experiment on Harding paper reveals his growing confidence in handling watercolour, suggesting that, by summer 1882, Van Gogh had emancipated himself from the guidance that Mauve had provided, starting to forge his own technique. Introducing colour and paving the way towards oil painting, works such as The ‘Laakmolen’ near The Hague confirmed Van Gogh’s own words, written a few months before: ‘in spite of everything, the sun is rising’ (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, letter 202, p. 26).